A Healthy Start for Vegan Children

Casual recommendations regarding vegan diets can and do take a toll on the health of some vegans. There is no reason why vegans should ever be at risk for nutrient deficiencies. But if they don’t have access to good advice, or don’t follow it, deficiencies can certainly happen. And as one reader of this blog (a vegan mom) mentioned to me after reading a somewhat alarming article on feeding vegan children, “all of these issues are magnified tenfold when children are involved.”

Vegan kids have some clear advantages; their diets are low in saturated fat, free of cholesterol, and rich in fiber plus all kinds of health-promoting plant chemicals. The tradeoff is that some nutrients need a little bit of extra attention.

For breastfed infants, though, recommendations are exactly the same whether a family is vegan or not. First, babies—especially those with dark skin—can be at risk for vitamin D deficiency if they don’t have adequate sun exposure. Breast milk is low in vitamin D regardless of the mother’s diet. Unless you are very certain that your baby gets enough sunlight to make vitamin D—and this depends on where you live, the time of year, and your baby’s skin—vitamin D supplements are absolutely necessary. Failure to provide vitamin D supplements is a significant predictor of vitamin D deficiency in breastfed infants.

Breastfed infants—again, vegan or not—also need a source of iron beginning at 4 to 6 months of age when their stores of this nutrient begin to run low. Since babies begin to eat solid foods at this stage, iron-fortified infant cereals are a good choice. If you prefer to make your own cereal, iron supplements—available as drops—are important.

The only nutrient that could be a unique issue for vegan infants is vitamin B12. But as long as a mom is supplementing appropriately, her breast milk will be adequate in B12.

Most babies start eating solids between the ages of four and six months. Readiness for solids depends on developmental signs, not age. One good sign that a baby is ready to explore new foods is the ability to sit up unsupported. From cereals, babies will progress to pureed fruits and veggies, and then more protein- and iron-rich foods like mashed beans and tofu. By their first birthday, they can have nut butters spread thinly on crackers.

Once children are weaned, it’s necessary to give some attention to calcium and vitamin B12. Toddlers need 500 milligrams of calcium per day and children aged 4 to 8 years need 800 milligrams per day. It’s certainly possible to get that amount from foods that are naturally rich in calcium, but many children will need fortified foods to meet needs.

Simply eating a variety of whole plant foods does not guarantee adequate calcium for children (or for adults for that matter). Fortified plant milks can be a great option, and so can small amounts of fortified fruit juices (although juices should play a minor role in toddlers’ diets).

Toddlers should get a small chewable B12 supplement providing around 10 micrograms per day, and preschoolers/school-aged kids should get around 15 to 20 micrograms per day.

Vegan toddlers have an advantage regarding iron because cow’s milk, which is extremely low in iron, often displaces iron-rich foods in the diets of omnivore children. But, even though plant foods are rich in iron, toddlers with sluggish appetites can fall short. This is especially true when higher fiber foods quickly fill those little tummies. Refined grains and cereals that are fortified with iron may help some children meet needs. It’s important to include lots of vitamin C rich foods in vegan children’s diets to give iron absorption a little boost.

Higher-fat foods like nuts, seeds and soyfoods can help vegan children meet nutrient needs. Unless children have allergies, there is no reason ever to eliminate these foods from their diets. Make sure that children get small daily amounts of ground flaxseed, walnuts, or a teaspoon or so of canola or walnut oil to ensure adequate intake of the essential omega-3 fatty acid.

Sub-optimal diet advice for vegan children can definitely place them at risk. But, there is no doubt about the fact that when they eat a healthy diet, vegan kids thrive.

For more information about feeding vegan children, I recommend this article by Dr. Reed Mangels.

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18 Responses to A Healthy Start for Vegan Children

  1. Mike November 5, 2012 at 11:11 am #

    Is it OK to grind regular B12 supplement tablets and put them in different solid dishes/foods? Also, can one use doses of B12 higher than 10 mcg or 20 mcg?

    • Ginny Messina November 5, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

      Sure, that’s fine to grind it up and put it in food. And here is a chart that gives ranges for different age groups. But going above those ranges isn’t a problem. B12 hasn’t been shown to be toxic. http://www.veganhealth.org/b12/rec

  2. Alej November 5, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

    This article left me a little worried… Im the vegan mum of a 6 months old vegan baby. I’ve been supplementing with b12 and D throughout my pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding. I haven’t given my baby any supplements directly as I thought she’d absorb them through my milk. She has just started exploring with solids. I’m waiting to see her eat and properly swallow before adding supplements to her food.
    Does iron and vitamin D need to be given to the baby directly? If so, which is a good vegan iron supplement?

    • Ginny Messina November 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

      Alej, breast milk is low in both iron and vitamin D, regardless of what you are eating (or what supplements you’re taking). Most babies have enough stored iron to last at least 6 months, but this would be a good time to start supplementing with iron drops. Your doc can recommend a pediatric brand, and they should all be vegan. If your baby is getting plenty of sunshine, she could be making plenty of vitamin D. If not, it would be good to start her on supplements of this nutrient, too. She should be getting plenty of B12 from your milk.

  3. Matt November 6, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    I know Ginny linked to it, but I just want to emphasize:
    http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/realveganchildren
    (Especially Ellen :)

  4. BK December 5, 2012 at 2:29 am #

    Thanks for the article.
    What is your opinion of coconut milk, oil, flakes, shreds etc?
    tks

    • Ginny Messina December 8, 2012 at 8:33 am #

      I think it’s fine, in a healthy vegan diet, to cook with these ingredients. They should play a fairly limited role in diets, but there is no reason to avoid them completely.

  5. Natasha January 2, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    I am a vegan breast feeding mother of a 7 month old . I also eat fatfree. No oil in my diet , some nuts may be. Does my baby get the necessary fat from my milk? Does my body fat translate into fat in breast milk? Should I start adding oil to my diet?
    Thanks

    • Ginny Messina January 3, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

      Natasha, your body can synthesize milk that is high enough in fat even if your diet is low in fat. I don’t recommend very low fat diets in general, and hope you’re paying attention to at least including good sources of omega-3 fats in your diet.

      • Natasha January 3, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

        Thank you so much for your reply Ginny . I will pay more attention to my omega 3.
        How much b12 supplement should I take while breast feeding?
        I went to dental school at LLU, nice to know a vegan rd there.
        Thanks

  6. Elaine January 15, 2013 at 7:51 am #

    Mom of a healthy happy vegan preschooler here! It’s not hard, just different from what many people are accustomed to. Ginny, would you consider adding some info about soy infant formula? Vegan prospective adoptive parents may appreciate it ;)

  7. Olivia May 21, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    Hi Ginny,

    How come the amount of B12 supplement we need is so much higher than the RDA? Doesn’t the RDA account for variations in absorption?

    Thank you

  8. Alanna June 1, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    Thank you Ginny. As a new vegan, and mom of four young children, I need this kind of info.

  9. sunshine October 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

    My second son just turned 1. We breastfeed when I’m not at work, but he’s starting to lose interest in bottles (pumped breastmilk). My older son did the same thing at that age, so I stoppped pumping and only nursed when I wasn’t at work.

    We don’t do milk as a beverage in our family. It’s not good for your teeth, and I feel strongly that children should learn to get their calories from chewing not from drinking.

    Is soy milk a MUST? Can I just give my children a multivitamin, solids, and water? The older one nursed until he was 2+. The younger one just turned 1 and I have no plans to wean him. I hope he stays interested until age 2 just like his brother.

    Thanks so much!

  10. Melissa July 18, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

    Hi, I have a child who is four years old and he has nine cavities. I have tried to read up on “healing” cavities but all that I have read advocates meat, eggs, dairy, etc. It says to avoid grains, nuts, seeds, and beans. This is not an option for me. They say the problem is the phytic acid, so I have been trying to learn ways to eliminate or reduce the amount of phytic acid in our food.
    Beyond this, do you have any information on Vegan Kids and dental health?

  11. Gen December 10, 2014 at 1:13 am #

    I have an almost 19 month old toddler. Our family is vegetarian, but we haven’t had eggs or dairy in the house for many years. My older kids ate so much food, and they still do. They are very healthy 15 and 12 year old kids. They were always huge in height and weight until they started thinning out at around 4-5. They have stayed very tall for their age.

    My toddler is still nursing just a few times a day. He is vegan partly because he is severely allergic to dairy and eggs. My toddler is also allergic to soy, wheat, gluten, tree nuts, and peanuts. I try to give him all that he needs, and I think I’m doing okay except for fats. He is not a fan of fats like seeds, coconut oil, and oil of any kind. He is also a picky eater in the sense that he might eat a lot at one meal but not at other meals. He isn’t consistent with his appetite, which seems normal for most kids. On average, he does eat more variety and more food than most kids his age, but I am so worried about his fat intake. I know how important it is for brain growth. The fats that he eats a decent amount of on most days are sunflower butter and veggie chips. I know that veggie chips aren’t ideal, but he will eat them. I cook as many of his food in fats, but he will not touch them if they have a little too much fat. I have to decide if it’s worth it because he might not get enough of everything else if I raise the fat level in his food.

    I wouldn’t be so concerned except that he used to be around the 90th percentile for many months, but now he is around the 50+ percentile for height and weight. His endocrinologist is concerned that he isn’t growing well, but she told me that his growth could be normal for him too. Kids with many food allergies are known to be generally smaller than their peers with no allergies even with similar calorie and nutrient intake. She can’t rule anything out yet, but his percentile numbers suddenly dropping so much concerned her enough that she asked me to make sure his diet is adequate, so that we might see an increase or at least no decrease in his percentile scores. He seems developmentally just fine to her and his other doctors, but they all want to make sure he is growing fine. BTW, he didn’t sleep for longer than an hour at a time every single night no matter what for more than a year. He gained weight weekly when he first started sleeping through the night, but now his growth has slowed down again even though he’s still sleeping through the night.

    My toddler takes an infant multivitamin with iron and vitD. He usually takes a calcium supplement because he won’t drink much or any fortified coconut or rice milk on any given day. I buy a few kinds of chewable and liquid calcium because he’s picky on what he will take on a certain day. Sometimes he won’t take any calcium supplements.

    What can I do to increase his fat intake? How do I figure out how much fat he is even eating? I’m afraid to go to an RD because not many of them are vegetarian or vegan friendly. I’m afraid that they’ll just tell me to feed my toddler meat. I will feed my toddler meat only if he needs it, but I want to know that he can’t be healthy with his limited diet first. I’m afraid that if he does need meat, that he won’t even eat much or any of it. He has so many allergies, that he might even end up allergic to meats.

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